Speed dating, Americas answer to the inefficiencies of the human courting ritual, has all the advantages for rushed singles. No tedious guessing whether someone is interested, no risk of painful rejection, and not more than three minutes wasted on Mr or Ms Wrong. The concept is simple. An equal number of single men and women meet in a bar or cafe. Couples talk for three minutes, then a signal sounds and the men change places. The process continues until everyone has met. At the end of each date the participants indicate on a form whether they would like to see the other person again. The forms are then collected and matches (mutual yes ratings) are sent each others e-mail address within 48 hours, to take it from there as they please.

For Romes first official speed dating experience about 40 people show up at the trendy BarBar in Prati, all turquoise cushions, brushed steel details and water features. Its a mixed crowd, with ages ranging from 24 to 40; the average is about 32. Everyone is fashionably dressed, and no one seems shy, desperate or incapable of getting a date in a normal situation. So what are they doing here? Roberto, a young officer of the guardia di finanza, says he is here for a bit of fun. Im in no hurry to find the woman of my life. The girls have a similarly light-hearted attitude. Were here for a laugh, says Virginia Macciocchi, who arrives with three friends. Sure, it would be nice to meet someone, but its a game.

The speed daters settle down, the timer starts, and theyre off. Between stopwatch and party tooter (the time up signal), the evenings host, Giuseppe Peppe Gambardella, stands beaming over the couples like a benevolent father. A half-Italian Londoner, Gambardella teaches English at his own language school. He used speed dating in English as a language exercise for small groups of his students, and when it resulted in a few relationships, he decided to take it from the livello artigianale to the livello industriale. He admits that he likes being a matchmaker, and hes genuinely pleased that tonight is working out so well. I think that social life for singles is about to change drastically. When you get older you dont have the energy to go out clubbing anymore, so you dont meet people that way. This is a safe, clean way to meet other singles.

Speed dating was invented in the US by a rabbi as a way of getting together marriage-minded young Jews, and the phenomenon is now hitting Europe. Last month in London an event dubbed the speed dating olympics attracted 3,000 singles over two evenings. But will speed dating take off in Italy? Interest is high this evening curious onlookers observe the game, ask for information and sign up for the next session. Gambardella is confident that it will be a success once word gets round. It wont just be a fad of a few months. Its been tried and tested around the world. Its a fantastic way for people to meet, he says.

One of the players, Armando, disagrees. He thinks speed dating is completely incompatible with the Italian character. Italian men like the hunt. No man would ever want to tell his friends he met his girlfriend on a speed date. Gambardella concedes that there is a taboo around the subject for men. But, he says, they came all the same. Wanted in Romes Silvia Avella, an Italian American who is also playing, sees a different cultural problem. I dont think Italians really like this sort of structure and organisation. It is true that its sometimes difficult to get the men to move on after three minutes, and telephone numbers are being exchanged although in theory this is against the rules.

By the end of the evening Macciocchi is exhausted and Avella is hoarse from having to shout over the music. All the faces are already becoming a blur, Macciocchi says. I can only remember the guys by the notes I took. Avella agrees: Id only recognise the ones I really liked. What makes a guy stand out is if he asks interesting questions. Most of them were just chit-chatting away without having prepared any questions.

Avella and Macciocchi both think the best thing about speed dating is that you get to meet people you wouldnt usually talk to. Im a lawyer, explains Macciocchi. I only ever meet other lawyers, and theyre usually just rushing past in court. But there is a down-side to this, as Avella points out. At least when you get approached in a bar, you know the guy is genuinely interested. A couple of times tonight I had the feeling that they werent really listening, and were just waiting to move on to the next girl.

That evening in Rome, every player had at least two matches. However, a match does not guarantee a follow-up. In the cold light of day players seemed to revert to the traditional cat-and-mouse game of dating by waiting to see who would send the first e-mail.

For a calendar of events and to register see www.meet-in.com,

or contact Giuseppe Gambardella on tel. 349/7625764.

Events cost between 20 and 25.

BarBar is in Via Crescenzio 18, corner Via Ovidio.